By Jeff Ernst and Miriam Jordan
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The passengers from American Airlines Flight 941 trickled out, alone, in couples and in groups — all but the small girl whose family was nervously awaiting her in the arrivals area. It had been three months since 2-year-old Fernanda Jacqueline Davila had been whisked away with her grandmother on a journey to the United States that had gone badly wrong.
For months, the child’s mother, Alison Michell Davila, had been trying with the rest of the family in Honduras to navigate the labyrinth of the American immigration system from afar. They pleaded for the release of the child, who was being held in foster care in New York. She doesn’t need to stay in America, the family told the authorities. Just let her come home.
Finally, more than an hour after the plane landed, an immigration officer emerged bearing the toddler in his arms. Ms. Davila wept. “Mi amor,” she called out, “my love.”
There was no smile of recognition — just a blank stare.
Mother, grandparents and aunts put away the welcome poster, the balloon and candy from her favorite movie, “Frozen,” all brought to celebrate the end of a venture that some had hoped might be a new beginning for Fernanda — but that had proved more painful than any of them had ever imagined.
The girl flew to the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Thursday with seven other children, most of whom had been separated from their families at the southwest border, among nearly 3,000 such separations that happened this year under a controversial Trump administration policy intended to deter migration from Central America. President Trump halted the practice in June after it came under attack, but four months later, federal authorities have been unable to return all the children to their families.
The eight children who flew from New York on Thursday were among more than 100 still living in shelters and temporary foster care, according to volunteer and advocacy groups working with migrant families.
In some cases, the adults who accompanied the children still in custody are themselves in immigration detention; others were deported, while their children were left behind.
Reuniting children with families overseas is a complicated process involving extensive paperwork from shelters, documents from the children’s families and approval from both governments. Often, permission must also be granted by a United States immigration judge.
Before Fernanda’s mother could even touch her daughter at the airport, immigration officers ushered the arriving children into a windowed room. It would be nearly 40 minutes more before they would emerge.
Tears streaming down their cheeks, the families pressed their faces against the glass, trying to catch their children’s attention. They waved. “Show us your teeth!” one shouted. “Look how much you have grown! We’ll be together soon.” Two little boys, who looked overwhelmed, took cover under a desk.
Fernanda’s mother held up her new daughter, Mia Charlotte, who was just a few days old when Fernanda had last seen her. Fernanda did not react.
Finally, a while later, she cracked a smile.
“She looked confused in the beginning, but after, she wanted to come with us,” Ms. Davila said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.
Hector Enrique Lazo, the child’s grandfather, was exuberant. “I am overjoyed to have her again. We were very worried because we heard she could be given up for adoption,” he said.
Later, his smile faded. Everyone had been taken aback by the child’s failure to respond to them. “I need to take her to a psychologist tomorrow,” Mr. Lazo said.
Fernanda had embarked with her maternal grandmother on a two-week journey to reach the United States in late July, only to be separated at the border in Texas. The grandmother, Nubia Archaga, said in an interview earlier this month that she had hoped to forge a new life in the United States with her granddaughter.
After two days in a holding facility at the border, Fernanda was flown to New York City, where she was under the care of Cayuga Centers, a child welfare agency in New York, and living with a foster family.
After locating her with the help of a toll-free number publicized on local television, the family in Honduras immediately began to fight for Fernanda’s return, scrambling to collect documents to prove that she was theirs.
Fernanda had been doted on by the entire family. She and her mother had lived with Mr. Lazo and his wife, who bought her toys and a tricycle, celebrated her birthdays and baptism.
Fernanda had been born four months after their son, Fernanda’s father, died in a car accident; she was a piece of their son they still had. “She came back to fill the void that our son left,” said Mr. Lazo.
The family had been furious over Ms. Archaga’s decision to take the child with her to the United States, a decision, they believed, made with the hope that having a child with her would facilitate her entry, albeit illegally, into the United States.
Last month, they were told that the little girl would go before a judge, who would decide her fate.
On Oct. 8, Fernanda was the youngest child that day to appear in a federal immigration courtroom in New York, so small she had to be lifted onto the chair. A lawyer for Catholic Charities, who had volunteered to take her case, asked the judge to grant the child “voluntary departure,” a kind of voluntary deportation that would enable Fernanda to return quickly to Honduras. It took two weeks to get all her travel documents together.
Early this week, her family was notified by the case manager in New York that she would be flown to Honduras on Thursday morning. Her aunt, Karenn Lazo, shared the news in an email, saying, “Our Fernandita is finally coming back.”
Ms. Davila and Mr. Lazo, along with his wife, two daughters and Ms. Davila’s new baby crammed into their old green pickup truck and set out in the wee hours from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, where they live in a working-class suburb, to San Pedro Sula.
A few other families also were awaiting children who had been separated from a loved one at the border. Sandra Isabel Pagoada said her son Carlos, 9, had crossed the border with his uncle, with her consent. “I wanted him to have a better life,” she said, sobbing and clutching a balloon.
But they were separated, the uncle summarily deported and Carlos transferred to a shelter, where he would end up spending five months. “I am so glad he is back here,” Ms. Pagoada said.
All the families waited tensely for the children’s first appearance after the plane landed. Every time the silhouette of a child appeared behind a privacy screen, the families took a deep breath.
Then suddenly all eight children, including Fernanda, were escorted to a room where their documents were reviewed.
The children ranged in age from about 2 to 16. It seemed that several of them had no one to pick them up, but authorities declined to answer any questions.
Even after the 40-minute processing, it was not over. A Honduran official stepped out and announced that all of those who had arrived would have to travel to a center for migrant children for additional screening before they could be officially returned to their families.
As Fernanda was carried toward a beige van that idled outside, the distance between her and her family growing, she began to squeal and flap her arms in protest. Her mother slipped into the group and climbed in the van along with her. Her grandparents and aunts followed in their truck.
After a couple of hours, mother and daughter came out.
Fernanda had counted “all the numbers” in English while they were inside, Ms. Davila said. “She told me all about what they did over there.”
Mr. Lazo grabbed his granddaughter. “Who am I?” he asked her.
She did not respond. “Soy tu papá, mi amor,” he said. “It’s your papa, my love.”
On closer inspection, they noticed her body was covered in red spots and scabs, apparently from scratching herself. A nurse at the center said it was an allergy, Ms. Davila said, and prescribed skin cream. But Fernanda had never had such an allergy, they said.
Weary but happy, the family stopped for a celebratory meal of fried fish near Lago de Yojoa, a big lake.
On the way, they picked up drinks at a gas station. Ms. Davila, her daughter propped on her lap, handed her some “Frozen”-themed candy.
“Mommy, is this a gift?” Fernanda asked.
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